It was not until six years later that one Anton de Alaminos set sail for Spain
from Vera Cruz, Mexico following the Florida coastline northward before turning
eastward to Europe. This same Anton de Alaminos was the chief pilot aboard
Ponce de Leon's ship on his earlier trip and had also sailed with Columbus on
his last voyage. Some historians credit Alaminos with the discovery of the Gulf
Stream, since he was the first to take advantage of it.
The use of the Gulf Stream resulted in many treasure-laden ships traveling
northward along the Keys, many of which wrecked upon its reefs. The
indigenous Indians were the first to take advantage of these unfortunate
shipwrecks. Soon an industry followed known as "wrecking," or salvaging
goods from wrecked ships. The Bahamians perfected the wrecking industry.
When Florida became a U.S. territory, Key West and Indian Key became the
Keys' primary headquarters for this industry. A captain Ben Baker, known as
"King of the Wreckers," settled on Key Largo in 1866 and grew pineapples
Years followed Ponce de Leon's discovery and not much was written about this
ocean river. Perhaps they were keeping it as secret as possible. Charts in the
1800s labeled the general area as the 'Gulf of Florida', 'Straits of Florida' and
'Canal de Bahama.' I have a 1842 Sidney Morris and Samuel Breese map
using the label Gulf Stream. See the maps page or click here then "Back."
Alexander Dallas Bache of the U.S. Coast Survey began detailed observations
of the phenomenon in 1845. Matthew Maury in 1855 wrote, "There is a river in
the ocean. In the severest droughts it never fails, and in the mightiest floods it
never overflows. Its banks and its bottoms are of cold water, while its currents
are warm. The Gulf of Mexico is its fountain and its mouth is in the Arctic Seas.
It is the Gulf Stream. There is in the world no other such majestic flow of
waters. Its current is more rapid than the Mississippi or the Amazon."
The Gulf Stream generally flows northward between the Keys and Cuba up the
northeast coast toward Cape Hatteras and then turns eastward across the
north Atlantic. The temperature of the stream differs from its surrounding water.
In fact, the temperature at the surface may be around 80 degrees while 400
fathoms down it may be 45 degrees.
Years before the above quotations, Benjamin Franklin while in England in
1769 was told of complaints that westward mail from Europe to America took
weeks longer than the east-bound ships from America. Franklin was the U.S.
Deputy Postmaster General, so he was interested in the alleged complaint. A
Nantucket whaler by the name of Timothy Folger said that the English ships
had to buck the Gulf Stream.
There are early maps, really charts, depicting the Gulf Stream, but Benjamin
Franklin and Timothy Folger printed the first map of the Gulf Stream in
1769-1770. Copies remained lost for nearly 200 years until found in France.
The Franklin map shows only "Florida".
Franklin, being the scientist that he was, took water temperature
measurements on three more North Atlantic crossings, and scientifically
recorded the readings. From his readings, he could determine whether a
vessel was in or out of the stream, and even approximately how close or
distant a ship was from America. Franklin postulated that, "This Stream is
probably generated by the accumulation of water on the eastern coast of
America between the tropics, by the trade winds that constantly blow there . . ."
He also recorded that the western bank of the stream is significantly cooler
(shallower water) than the eastern bank. He reasoned that the velocity of the
stream gradually slowed as it flowed north, but could maintain its relative
warmth to the colder North Atlantic.
In typical Franklin style, his observations were quite extensive and resulted in a
relatively accurate engraved chart accompanied with scientific observations of
the stream. He published a chart in 1770 to assist the mail ships in avoiding it
on their westward journeys. Franklin is generally given credit for correctly
explaining the stream's cause.
Franklin even suggested the name "Gulf Stream," even though it is a huge,
circular motion in the Atlantic Ocean and has little to do with the Gulf of Mexico.
Later, corrections to Franklin's postulates were made for ocean bottom
changes, declinations of the moon and surface wind effects. Most agree,
though, when all the temporary changes are accounted for, the Gulf Stream is
accurately predictable and over a great period of time is immutable.
Today, northbound ships choose the maximum velocity stream current while
southbound ships hug the outer edges to conserve fuel. One problem is that
the stream does not have definitive banks and meanders back and forth as
well as in width as it proceeds north. The maximum current off the coast of
Florida ranges from two to four knots, although speeds of eight knots have
been reported. Its width varies, but generally is 40 to 50 miles in width.
The Gulf Stream was probably the vehicle that carried the strange woods and
fruits found on the shores of Europe long before Columbus sailed.
HISTORICAL PRESERVATION SOCIETY OF THE UPPER KEYS
Jerry Wilkinson · Key Largo, FL
The Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys meet at
Key Largo Library Community Room, second Monday of each
month. Most programs of a historical nature.
Historians can be called "the scientists of hindsight." Hindsight can be
focused on a single event or a chain of events. Much of Keys history is shores
since they were discovered. Why are thousands of ships lying sunken on and
off our reefs? The primary answer is the flow of the Gulf Stream, bad weather
and poor judgment.
The Gulf Stream exerted a tremendous influence on the colonization of North
America. Most all colonization from Virginia to the south chose the southern
route across the Atlantic even though it was 2,000-3,000 miles farther. Few
return voyages to Europe failed to utilize at least part of the Gulf Stream.
Cortez was perhaps the first to send large numbers of ships from Mexico
northward through the Florida Straits, then eastward following the clockwise
motion of the Gulf Stream to return to Spain. A visit with any of the shipwreck
museums will reveal the results of the unsuccessful voyages.
A notation in the Herrera's summary of the log of Ponce de Leon's voyage log,
on April 22, 1513, noted, "A current such that, although they had great wind,
they could not proceed forward, but backward and it seems that they were
proceeding well; at the end it was known that the current was more powerful
than the wind." This is probably the first written evidence of the Gulf Stream and
Ponce de Leon is considered its discoverer.
Information about the Florida Keys and Key West